Saturday, August 25, 2018


What a bad couple weeks to be a fan of puppet movies. This weekend brings theaters Brian Henson's colossally misguided The Happytime Murders, which is not merely outrageously vulgar, but deeply, unpleasantly unfunny. It's bad enough that it's a cringingly empty provocation -- with Muppet-y designs swearing, doing drugs, and making all manner of explicit sexual reference as if that's enough of a joke in and of itself -- but that it's coming from inside the Henson family makes it especially painful. I won't go so far as to accuse the son of betraying the father, but it does seem out of character with Jim Henson's project. Sure, a Muppet Show pilot was titled "Sex and Violence," but that had more to do with the time's wry, dry Smothers brothers/Tom Lehrer tone. Besides, this isn't even close to that. Long gone are even the days when Jim Henson's son was making silly/tony literary adaptations with Muppet casts interacting amongst great thespians giving it their all (Michael Caine in Muppet Christmas Carol and Tim Curry in Muppet Treasure Island). Now Brian Henson has stooped to this grimly stupid passion project -- a hard-R Who Framed Roger Rabbit riff for the felt-and-googly-eye set. Here Melissa McCarthy (with yet another in her increasingly long line of disappointing choices) plays the Bob Hoskins human partner to a sour blue P.I. puppet (performed by longtime Muppeteer Bill Baretta). In flat, thin scenes stumbling out in dull procession, they're trying to solve the mystery of a serial killer targeting the puppet cast of a 90's sitcom (though weirdly one flashback to its set is scored to LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It," so figure that out). The gags limp to obvious gross punchlines, the mystery rarely rises to the level of diverting, and not even brief appearances by usually funny humans like Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker, and Joel McHale can jerk laughs from the listless scenes. Would that the potentially fine premise rise to the vastly superior cleverness of the family friendly material from which it attempts to borrow affection for purposelessly smutty purposes. When I wasn't disengaged or disgusted, I mostly felt sadness that, four years after the great Muppets Most Wanted, Disney can't figure out how to keep making Muppet movies, but this fleet of producers could get this dreck financed and released. 

Even worse, however, is Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. Somehow it's a shorter distance to fall -- the 1989 direct-to-VHS original has a certain cheap dreamy appeal, but is certainly nowhere near good -- and yet the movie is still more disappointing. The umpteenth in the long series, and a remake of sorts, is a clumsy, staggeringly inept little horror movie with some chunky gore prosthetic effects and very little else. Characters (even those played by the recognizable, and usually enjoyable, likes of Thomas Lennon, Barbara Crampton, and Charlyne Yi) are haphazardly introduced, the ensemble erratically grown, the gross-out deaths oddly paced. The sound design is thin and often cavernous. The music is a halting, choppy synths and MIDI chirp. Like Happytime Murders, its entire raison d'être is to provoke, and it proceeds to do so in nasty yet fruitless ways. The plot concerns a Nazi puppet-maker (Udo Kier) who creates an army of little toys who come to life and kill those he dislikes. The extended kill-fest the movie largely becomes involves the puppets attacking a hotel, invading room after room to kill Jewish, gay, gypsy, and black people. It's disgusting -- complete with burning yarmulke and a violated pregnant woman -- but also thinks that's the beginning and end of its point. It conjures this upsetting material for nothing more than a showcase for the makeup team's oozing burns, loosened heads, and deep gashes. It skips past any possible satiric point and, in its eagerness to skip everything approaching fundamental competent filmmaking, hits long stretches of boredom punctuated by the longest, vilest orgy of useless violence horror has seen in a while. To think it's scripted (but not directed) by S. Craig Zahler, whose 2015 horror western Bone Tomahawk made him one of genre's newest best hopes. This movie is enough to make one think gloomy thoughts about why all involved thought this was worth making.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Boy Meets Dog: ALPHA

Albert Hughes, making his first directorial effort without his co-directing brother Allen with whom he made several striking films including Menace II Society and The Book of Eli, is in a typically stylish mood for Alpha, a simple prehistoric parable in which a boy becomes a man by shunning violence and taming a wild beast. There's little to this basic plot -- a teen left for dead after a hunting accident slowly heals and bonds with a wild wolf as he painstakingly works his way across harrowing weather-beaten plains to home -- but Hughes provides the simple story a fine sense of space and place. The windy plains and steep cliffs build startling tableaux of natural, raw environment in which man is small and vulnerable. The world is wide and empty. The simple act of getting from place to place is an adventure; the process of hunting and gathering is a protracted life-or-death dilemma. Hughes builds this imagery in concert with a spare sound design -- whistling gusts; soft rattles of furs and rudimentary tools; a grunted and guttural tribal language with not a single recognizable word any modern human would know (hence the dialogue kept to a minimum and accompanied by English subtitles). It has a primal, elemental look and feel, burnished and polished with an eye to turning these simple scenes into something approaching myth in smooth CG-assisted camera moves, clever uses of speed-ramping and time-lapse photography, and blocking that occasionally looks like flesh-and-blood live-action recreations of museum dioramas. There are moments that look like pages from a comic book of oil paintings. I bet Hughes could make a heckuva Beowulf in the original Old English with this style.

The movie stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as the lost boy, painfully thin with long limbs and smooth face. Even bundled in animals skins and furs to ward off the autumnal chill, he takes up significantly less space than the muscled and grizzled men around him. It all serves to make him different, highlighting his youth, his tenderness, even before we see him incapable of killing a pig for food. After the accident and his tribe's hunters reluctantly, sorrowfully move on, he's attacked by wolves. While managing to scare them off, he leaves one poor growling pup stranded with a bad cut impeding his mobility. The boy's sweetness -- his mother, with worried love, has said "he leads not with his spear, but with his heart" -- can't leave the dog for dead, and therefore cleans the wound and brings food and water to share. Setting itself up as an origin story for the domestication of dogs, the movie features a slow, steady drip of increasing trust between the two. Smit-McPhee carries the scenes in concert with some fine canine acting ("and introducing Chuck as Alpha" is indisputably the "and" credit of the year), both holding their own in body language driven scenes. Hughes keeps the danger big and scenes small, tracing the primal needs for food and shelter in the specific, trusting the landscape to carry both suspense and scope. The eccentric aesthetic choices -- long takes, striking blocking, an invented prehistoric language, digital 3D popping with a sculpted, inviting depth not seen since the heyday of the tech's boomlet of auteur interest -- serve the story well. It makes what could've been simple and small sweep with visual interest, and holds back some of the story's sentimentality with the harsh reality of ancient tribal survival. It's an unusual film, not quite as gripping or moving as you might think, but nonetheless compelling, animated with a convincing sense of prehistoric proportion. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018


BlacKkKlansman, based on a true story of a black cop leading an investigation into the KKK in 1970's Colorado Springs, opens by acknowledging the role fictionalizations of the past play in manipulating our ideas about it. The first thing we see is the famous field hospital crane shot from Gone with the Wind—a film that is a problematic classic text, a work of confederate nostalgia, and one of golden age studio system filmmaking’s pinnacles of craft. In the original context, it’s supposed to be a shot for which the audience marvels at the enormity, a field of extras steadily revealed by the unblinking awe of the camera movement, and feels sorrow for the good old boys wounded and writhing en masse. Here, though, isolated and placed at the beginning of a Spike Lee film, there’s an extra layer of exhausted sorrow added on top of its dazzling construction. It’s a strong feeling of disgust. I was thinking, "what a waste," reacting not just to the dead and dying humanity, but their legacy. All these white boys dead and dying for the right to uphold a racist institution, to cling to wealth and status built on the backs of enslaved people of color. How misguided, and how damaging to our long-term societal health to imbue these images with a noble suffering, to take them at their word when they claim it was merely a principled stand for freedom and states rights. To strip the Civil War's losers of their full aim is to ultimately allow them to win. They lost the war, they lost their slaves, but white supremacy reigns.

This white-washed Confederate pride has resonated through the century and a half since the war's end. It’s a cultural poison that trickles down. Confederate vets were allowed to stubbornly cling to their wounded righteousness. Griffith’s 1915 epic Birth of a Nation rebirthed the KKK for an age of Jim Crow lynchings. Margaret Mitchell’s nostalgia-tinged Wind told a story of charmed plantation melodrama torn asunder while marginalizing and excusing prejudice under the guise of old-fashioned courtly Southern rituals. These cultural signposts have perpetuated decades after decades the comfort pathetic and desperate whites find in their racism, the belief that, as MLK said, they may be poor, but at least they’re not black. Of course, affluent, privileged whites can be racist, too. They let the impoverished fester to prop up their middle class power (codified in zoning boards and police officers) or demagogic notoriety (David Duke’s trading of a white hood for a callow suit-and-tie PR speak; GOP congressmen winking and dog whistling; a president who can only bring himself to condemn racism if he pretends there are good people “on both sides” of the issue). As BlacKkKlansman begins it cuts from Wind to a white supremacist in a suit (Alec Baldwin) frothing at the mouth as he films a propaganda lecture. He speaks of his ideas of his God-given superiority, while Lee's fragmented cutting and unflinching eye for the character's stuttering sputtering put such superiority as the lie it is. Fictions within fictions, white grievance is just a story the racist tell themselves.

That Lee’s film is engaged with this cultural continuum, and is also a crackling procedural, an enormously satisfying Hollywood product, and a riotously funny, rousingly tense genre film, is to his credit. Always a master of mixing tones — his films swerving wildly to build moods and generate ideological conversation, as exuberantly didactic as they can be deliberately, productively contradictory — here he’s executing some of the tightest, swiftest, hairpin turns of his career. Laughs catch in the throat. Tension is cut with absurdity. Character is embodied in action, politics in the personal. Catharsis arrives big and broad, but hardly stamps out the simmering contradictions, open questions, and unresolved danger underneath. It builds a fiction from facts to tell us a (US A?) truth. As the story proper begins, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) steps into the Colorado Springs police department to be hired as the force's first black officer. He's warned by the chief that the other officers might use racial slurs against him. "Will that happen?" Stallworth earnestly asks. His naivety is played up as part of a political awakening, as one of his first tasks is to infiltrate a black student group, as befits the time period's bigoted policing and surveillance priorities. (How many earnest young political organizations were taken down by a law enforcement apparatus that dismantled, discredited, and violently opposed progressive racial politics while ignoring the very real threat of white-wing terrorists bubbling up beneath mainstream attention?) Stallworth falls for the group's leader (Laura Harrier) who doesn't know he's a cop. (They fall in love during an ecstatic dance number set to, thematically appropriate, "Too Late to Turn Back Now.") She says all cops are pigs. Why, that very night, a racist cop pulls her over for no reason other than to humiliate and intimidate. Stallworth asks if it's possible a good cop could change things from the inside. She says no. She has good reasons. How does Stallworth feel about this? How to square the idea that he's trying to help the public in his position of power and the fact that the system of power is built to protect his people's abusers?

The question is a live wire, as unresolved and electric as the idea of the movie itself, Lee choosing to make a film with a black cop hero in a time of renewed attention to police brutality. It's not for no reason he has his heroes name check Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, black power made institutional. In this inside-out capacity, Stallworth, seemingly on a whim, though clearly with the contradictions of racial and political identity swirling within him, calls up the local KKK chapter and convinces them to let him apply for membership. Obviously, this calls for the police to assign him a white partner (Adam Driver) to do the face-to-face undercover investigations. Together, they act as one. It leads to a film of dogged detective work, two cops shot and framed like a lost blaxploitation pairing or TV cop procedural, bantering and bonding as they break out the wires and tails and telephoto lenses. Every step is dangerous, as the vile and profane racists whose inner sanctums they infiltrate would clearly not react well to discovering they're subjects of a police investigation led by a black man and his Jewish colleague. There's a razor-wire tension to these sequences, cut with huge laughs that never undermine the seriousness of the situation. The Klansmen are portrayed as deeply buffoonish men who blunderingly believe themselves superior. Their ideology is treated, rightfully so, as a joke. And yet the dangerousness of these ideas is never once diminished or laughed off. They wave around guns, conspire with mysterious military-trained men, burn crosses, and plan to procure explosives. They may be idiots, but they are idiots poisoned by racist views of the world, and armed with deadly weapons and the intent to use them. Stallworth eventually strikes up a phone conversation with David Duke (Topher Grace), who assures his white friend (ha ha) that he knows a black man when he hears one (ha ha). White supremacy is a dangerous fool's game, but there are always more fools to follow them.

In the end, Lee builds to a beautifully satisfying climax, a chain-reaction of exceptional catharsis that crashes into cold reality. What does this investigation, so entertainingly recounted, ultimately reveal? Nothing that couldn't have been easily known before. What did it prevent? Not much, as no matter the outcome for these individual characters, the core KKK ideas remained very much intact, ready to rear their ugly head through all manner of recurring racist policies, politicians, and violence over the forty years since. The film allows small victory, but ends its fiction with the sign of a burning cross out the window, two characters approaching in a trademark Lee double-dolly shot, drawn inevitably into the future where racism must always be confronted. Once the fight has begun, one must remain ever vigilant. A key sequence intercuts a Klan rally induction with black activists listening as an elder statesman (Harry Belafonte) movingly, harrowingly tells of a lynching he witnessed as a boy. Two groups engaged with their history, one finding comfort and fervor in racist lies of imagined grievance told to maintain a false sense of power over others, the other emboldened to pay respect to the true violence done to their ancestors (not even that far back--their grandparents, their parents, themselves) by claiming a right to shared power and equality. In dramatizing this struggle, Lee finds great humor and suspense along the way, but leaves us with the cold realization that small victories, be it for a black undercover Klansman or for the Union army, can always be undermined. Sure enough, look at the news. This, Lee says, is an emergency. BlacKkKlansman makes fiction out of the past to begin to right (and write and write) the wrongs left by fictions past.

Bore War: MILE 22

Peter Berg's latest Mark Wahlberg action movie has nothing going for it. Doing away with the patina of realism that partially excused the self-seriousness and hand-held grit of such jingoistic tripe as loose docu-thrillers Lone Survivor and Patriot's Day, and actually worked well in the ensemble based-on-a-true-disaster Deepwater Horizon, now leaves just nonsensical noise. The joyless and boring Mile 22 is one of those jangly, hyperactive, thinly developed and manically empty action films that usually head straight to cluttering the VOD listings and the DVD shelves of your neighborhood Wal-Marts, but somehow escaped to the big screen. It stars Wahlberg as a deep state covert-ops something-or-other who is always hollering as fast as he can through every scene. At one point in the early going he goes wild-eyed as he tosses a colleague's dessert on the floor and shouts, "No birthday cake!" Sounds funny, but movie is too grim and brisk to enjoy its own stupidity. He means business. Or maybe he just needs to check into an asylum for awhile. Anyway, his boss is John Malkovich, collecting an easy paycheck for sitting in a big empty warehouse with extras staring at computer screens. Theoretically they're surveillance assistance for Wahlberg's missions, but they mostly just sit there. I particularly enjoyed the one guy who chirps "social media is all clear" as if that's a big concern when planning extrajudicial raids. (I wonder if he gets jealous of the drone operator on one side of him and the traffic-light-changer on the other.) You can see the inanities piling up, even before you realize it's numbing. 

It is so quickly cut the DCP seems like it's playing at 2x speed (despite barely enough plot to fill half the time) and very nearly the entire 90 minutes are taken up by one hectic, incoherent action scenario intercut with flash-forward scenes of Wahlberg in close-up ranting and raving nonsensical faux-profound conspiracy gobbledygook made shallowly timely with lines like "you think you know collusion? You don't even know!" It's all shouting and shooting, gory explosions and a dull monotony of odious violence and ugly geopolitical assumptions. A cop in a foreign country -- vaguely labeled "South Asia" -- turns himself into the American embassy and has to be smuggled 22 miles out of the country with vital international security info. He's played by The Raid's great Iko Uwais, and if you think that means he'll have at least one good fight scene, you'd be right, although it's so short you can see most of it in the trailer. You'd think with a 16 Blocks concept potentially easily manipulated for suspense and one-thing-after-another action, a dependable team of craftspeople could make it work on even some basic reptilian level. Alas, the movie won't even get that simple idea right, loading up with endless cutaways and a rushed pace that just gets tedious. After a while I closed my eyes, curled up in my seat, and tried take a nap. If the theater had the sound down a smidgen, I might've succeeded.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

International BFFs of Mystery: THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME

At first glance, writer-director Susanna Fogel's new film, The Spy Who Dumped Me, couldn't be more different from her debut, 2014's comic relationship drama Life Partners. The latter is small-scale, quiet, intimate, with humor bubbling naturally. The former is, from minute one, flying headfirst into a bloody action comedy routine. And yet, when you get right down to it, the films are basically the same, both following a pair of best girl friends whose buddy dynamics are turned topsy-turvy by a man. They also both rest on the crackling, easy, lived-in chemistry between their leads. That's a neat trick, turning the same character rapport into two very different registers and wringing nice laughs out of each divergent premise. I quite like them. But where Partners' stakes were simply the fate of Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs' characters' friendship, Dumped has to do with something something the fate of millions. Less an action spoof, more a straight-ahead high-impact action film with lots of goof-around details in the margins, it draws upon familiar ideas -- a little Spies Like Us here, a little Pink Panther there, a lot of Paul Feig's Spy all over -- but sends its leads so energetically into set pieces done up with fast-paced staging and robust stunt work that you hardly care it's treading familiar ground. It's too fast and funny to stop and let any nagging doubts in. It's slick and enjoyable that way.

It stars Mila Kunis as a woman freshly dumped by her seemingly dopey boyfriend (Justin Theroux) who, as it turns out, is a spy. She's targeted for elimination by all sorts of nasty people simply because her ex left a MacGuffin in her apartment pre-breakup. Because her best friend (Kate McKinnon) is her roommate, she's caught up in this mess, too. So it's off to Europe where they hope to sort this whole misunderstanding out, but everywhere they go gunfire, car chases, martial arts, and competing spy factions follow. The fish-out-of-water elements are just fine, and the grisly action is hectic, clearly choreographed, and edited for maximum comprehensible impact. But what really puts the movie over is the bantering between Kunis and McKinnon, who have distinct yet compatible styles of comedy. Kunis maintains a tight control over her character, containing her fear and disbelief in discrete moments between her determination to live up to the challenges they face. McKinnon, on the other hand, is an inflatable tube man of manic energy, flailing and shouting and seeming eager to participate in whatever shenanigans will keep them alive. They're both coping with fear and confusion, tense and snappy, but still totally having each other's back no matter what. It's refreshing to see there are no false conflicts between them as they're desperate to stick together and survive. The movie finds its humor broadly in splashes of gore bordering on slapstick, silly characterizations (a skeletal gymnast turned fashion model moonlighting as an assassin is a fine goof on thriller tropes) and yelling. But it also goes subtle, mining the little details between the characters (McKinnon's has acting aspirations that slip out in funny ways) and their place in the geopolitical situation. At one stop the ladies pull guns on an innocent European tourist who sizes them up calmly before dryly asking, "Americans?" As the misadventure hurtles along, the two of them start to think they might like being spies. Why not? In the movie's use of international intrigue, danger and violence are mostly free of consequence, spiked with laughs, and all in service of getting closer to your best friend. 


What happened to Christopher Robin after he grew too old for his imaginary friends in the Hundred Acre Wood? We've gotten along fine until now just keeping him in perpetual childhood, AA Milne's books and Disney's animated shorts, shows, and films (as recently as 2011's fine iteration) poking along with Winnie the Pooh and his menagerie of pals. Robin grew up, though, we're told in the opening scenes of Christopher Robin, which take him quickly and elegantly from boarding school to adulthood (Ewan McGregor) in a flash, then to an encounter with a lovely woman (Hayley Atwell) he weds and with whom he has a daughter, before enlisting in World War II. Then the story proper begins in post-war London, with Robin a harried business man sadly staring down a stack of paperwork while his family leaves on their vacation without him. Here is where Pooh comes in. Awoken with a breeze of reminiscence and imagination, the silly old bear stumbles out of a tree and into London where he quickly recognizes his old friend. Robin, of course, is frazzled as he tries to get Pooh back to the woods of childhood imagination where he belongs. If the basic shape of the film starts to sound familiar, it's because it travels the same route taken by every story of a workaholic dad reconnecting with the magic of youth and restoring a proper work-life balance. The benefits here are that it involves intellectual property for which its owners can exploit tremendous cross-generational nostalgic value. When the realistic CG stuffed animal speaks in the voice of Jim Cummings' instantly recognizable soft, sweet, gentle Pooh, the heart strings are set to tugging. Yes, one thinks, this stumbly, bumbly bear is just the cure dour Robin needs in his life.

If I may be cynical for a moment, it's interesting to note Disney's project of making live-action entertainments out of their animated classics has reached a film that, at least in part, serves as self-justification. Reconnect with the Disney characters of your past in a new context and it'll save your relationship, your job, your kids, and your happiness, just like it does Christopher Robin, who goes from slumping with a briefcase and sad eyes to trotting through the forest with a spring in his step and a sparkle in his expression. This is the easy read of the film's derivative plot mechanics, but the film itself is entirely too pleasant and lovely to bear out such grim mercenary takes too thoroughly.  No, instead the screenwriters -- the unlikely trio of Alex Ross Perry (of prickly indies like The Color Wheel), Tom McCarthy (of smooth, talky dramas like Spotlight), and Allison Schroeder (her major credit a glossy crowd-pleaser, Hidden Figures) -- are clearly invested in the pure childlike whimsy and literate mid-century pleasures of Winnie the Pooh, updating the world around Robin without sacrificing an ounce of the original characters' innocent naïveté, their simpleness that backs up into plain-spoken wisdom. By the time the ensemble includes Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, and the rest, it has all the gentle warmth of a satisfying afternoon reunion, stretched out, poky, taking its time, slow but in a charming and loving way. The story -- a journey there and back again, when you get right down to it -- hardly gets in the way of spending time with old friends. Director Marc Forster calls upon some of his Finding Neverland matter-of-fact metaphorical interplay with fantasy and reality, shooting the wholly convincing CG toys -- shaggy and faded from years of outdoor play -- and their forest world with the same casualness that he treats the period settings and hustle-bustle in London. It works. It may be small, simple, and sentimental, but then again, so is Pooh. That's enough to warm the heart in all the right places.